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Bills' Andre Roberts bets on himself, carves niche as return man

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Andre Roberts has no issue with having to prove himself. It's why he's signed a series of one-year deals over the course of his 10-year career; the NFL is a meritocracy and if he has to earn his place in it one year at a time, so be it.

The Buffalo Bills wide receiver was actually prepared to do so once again this past offseason -- before a conversation with a former teammate convinced him to tack on an extra year.

"I actually wanted to sign another one-year deal because I like betting on myself," Roberts said. "But what Lorenzo Alexander told me about this place, what they were trying to build, I really didn't have a problem signing a two-year deal and being here a little longer -- and after two years, we'll see.

"Obviously, we're playing well right now, but the guys that coach [Sean] McDermott has wanted to bring in the building and the culture he's wanting to build was intriguing to me and something I wanted to be a part of."

Roberts signed a two-year, $4.6 million deal with the Bills this offseason -- his fifth team in as many years. One year removed from an All-Pro campaign with the New York Jets, the 31-year-old didn't need much convincing to stay in the AFC East.

For Alexander, who came to Buffalo in 2016 and previously played with Roberts in Arizona, the state of the franchise was an easy sell. The stigma attached to it -- after one playoff appearance in 17 years -- was one Alexander was eager to denounce.

"I just tried to debunk a lot of perceptions of Buffalo, really," he said about his conversation with Roberts. "Obviously, as an organization, we haven't been successful in a while, so players' natural inclination is to think about how cold it is. I was just letting him know how great ownership was and the investments into the facility and [owners] really give us a lot of resources.

"I think there is a perception of what Buffalo is from the outside, so (I just tried) to break a lot of that stuff down."

Since being drafted in the third round by the Arizona Cardinals in 2010, Roberts' career led him to several stops, including Detroit and Atlanta before joining the Jets and Bills. An established veteran, he's carved out a niche in the league as a return specialist -- a skill he actually developed while playing for Buffalo's Week 9 opponent, Washington (1 p.m. ET, Fox), which signed Roberts to a four-year contract during his first venture into free agency in 2014.

Initially drawn by the presence of third-year quarterback Robert Griffin III, Roberts hoped to assist with the rebuild first-year coach Jay Gruden was hired to orchestrate. Roberts projected to be the team's second receiver opposite Pierre Garcon, but those plans swiftly changed when Washington signed the dynamic DeSean Jackson that same offseason.

His role diminished, Roberts sought to make an impact however he could -- even if it meant returning kicks and punts, which he hadn't done much of since his rookie season.

"My second year in Arizona, I became a starter at receiver. Patrick Peterson came in and did the returns, so once I became a starter, I just wanted to focus on being a receiver," Roberts said. "When I went to Washington, they signed DeSean -- I expected to be the No. 2 when I got there but I was just relegated to No. 3.

"I wanted to get my hands on the ball more so I asked if I could do the returns."

Roberts finished the season ranked inside the top-20 in total return yards and average yards per return for both punts and kickoffs. But he suffered a knee injury in 2015 and was cut by Washington in 2016, just two years into his deal.

"When I got to Detroit, they were like, 'Yeah we want you to play receiver some, but we want you to be a primary returner,'" Roberts said.

From his first year in Detroit in 2016 to his lone year with the Jets in 2018, Roberts was the best return specialist in the NFL. No other player has more kickoff return yards in that span and only Tyreek Hill and Marcus Sherels have more punt return yards. In terms of combined return yards, only Tyler Locket's 2,671 come close to Roberts' 3,552.

The NFL is a meritocracy but it's also a league of opportunity -- rewarding players who take advantage of theirs, more often than not. Roberts' demotion in Washington after Jackson's signing turned out to be a blessing in disguise, and a career-extending one, at that.

"Most definitely, because it kind of threw me into another role," Roberts said in reference to his time in Washington. "It showed that I was capable of doing more than just playing receiver."

Roberts, who missed the Bills' first two games this season, ranks 11th in the NFL in average yards per kickoff return (27.0). He's a major reason why Buffalo is fifth in average starting position after a kickoff returns and one of three teams to have all of their kickoff returns reach at least the 20-yard line, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

While the culture in Buffalo isn't totally unique in the NFL -- Roberts said Atlanta offered similar values during his season there -- it is generally a hallmark of winning teams. At 5-2 this season, the Bills have become exactly that.

"That helps you win, having a culture that you have here," Roberts said. "Guys actually playing for each other and wanting to be around each other outside the building. It helps you when it comes time to play on Sundays, believe it or not."